Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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Talking Transportation: Fixing the DOT

By Jim Cameron

Special to WestportNow

It’s the government agency we love to hate. Who hasn’t been stuck in endless construction delays on I-95 and not cursed the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT)? And what commuter hasn’t shivered on an aging Metro-North train lacking heat and not asked “Who’s running this darn railroad?”

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Mind you, I have a lot of respect for the CDOT and its 3,800 employees, most of whom labor long and hard to improve transportation in our state. (Full disclosure: I wanted to be a transportation engineer and studied that at Lehigh University for about one semester before the Arts College seemed more viable.) 

The problem is, the CDOT is so unwieldy and poorly managed that the staff can’t get things done.

Remember the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge 20 years ago? CDOT took most of the blame, but it was the governor and legislature that cut funding and forced a reduction of safety inspections.

Sure, there are corruption and payoffs. The mess over the I-84 storm sewers showed us that, but again it was lack of oversight that didn’t catch that problem. And yes, there’s even an arrogance among some staffers which doesn’t endear the agency to the public.

True story: a CDOT engineer was at a public meeting over a planned highway widening project requiring the felling of some old trees. When a citizen asked why it was necessary to chop down the trees, the CDOT engineer answered, “You wouldn’t understand.  You’re not an engineer.” Nice.

The recently issued Critelli Commission report on reform of the CDOT recounts dozens of such problems within the agency. And to her credit, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has not only read the report’s recommendations but is acting upon them.

In her recent budget address, Rell called for splitting the CDOT into two agencies—a Department of Highways and a separate Department of Public Transportation, Aviation and Ports.

Connecticut would thus follow the lead of the other 49 states that recognize the need to carve out separate agencies for these disparate duties. 

For years now I’ve been calling for creation of a CTA—Connecticut Transportation Authority—and this comes pretty darn close. It’s time to get mass transit away from the asphalt and concrete interests that dominate CDOT.

In 2005, when Metro-North was at a near melt-down due to lack of investment in new rail cars, CDOT spent 76 percent of state transportation improvement money and 84 percent of federal flexible funds on highways.

While states like California have long ago halted new highway construction in favor of mass transit, we in “the land of steady habits” see our DOT spending six years and $1.5 billion on the Q bridge project in New Haven. 

Were that money instead invested in expanded Shore Line East service, we’d lessen traffic for decades and avoid years of construction delays.

On the mass transit side of the current CDOT, there’s too little staff and far too much work. Long overdue projects to repair our stations and expand parking languish on the “to do” list as rail and bus administrators just try to keep the system running week to week.

But a new day is dawning for Metro-North riders come the delivery of new rail cars in 2009 – 2010. We have much to do to prepare for their arrival—including an $800 million maintenance shop in New Haven that’s way, way over budget.  But that’s the topic for a future column.
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James Cameron (Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 17 years. He is chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area, and the Darien Representative Town Meeting. The opinions expressed here are his own, and not necessarily those of the groups on which he serves. You can reach him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or http://www.trainweb.org/ct.  For the full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit http://www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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